Universities are often the battlegrounds of social change. The current controversy at Gallaudet University, the world’s only university for the deaf, points to a little known and less understood debate confronting our society.
The protests began early last May when the board selected Dr. Jane Fernandes as its new president. The selection angered students and faculty for different reasons. Some criticized Fernandes’ leadership abilities, while others took issue with the secretive selection process. But it appears that more took issue with her proposed direction for Gallaudet. Fernandes, citing the changing deaf community, has pushed for a broader acceptance of the many kinds of deaf people and communication forms. Specifically, this viewpoint embraces cochlear implants, a technology that allows many deaf people to perceive and accurately recognize sounds.
While moving toward broader acceptance seems noble, to many this viewpoint runs contrary to the identity embraced by Gallaudet and the deaf community. By accepting cochlear-implant technology, they argue, it degrades the importance of American Sign Language and implicitly suggests that deaf people “need to be fixed,” an assault which harkens back to the 1970s when some educators discouraged the use of sign language and emphasized oral speaking instead. The approach toward communication didn’t work but that didn’t matter – conformity was key. This policy is just one example of the many instances that have fostered animosity toward the hearing community, and it appears the current protests at Gallaudet are a manifestation of this hostility.
The conflict is magnified by the increasing prevalence of cochlear implants. With the vast majority of deaf children born to hearing parents more parents are seeking this medical procedure, often without understanding the indirect challenges this procedure will pose for their children.
To blame science for this problem is misguided. It points to the specific question: Should acceptance always prevail, even if it ultimately leads to the dissolution of a community?